One of the reasons that Fredericksburg has had such a long and interesting history is its strategic location at the falls of the Rappahannock River. To the Indians, the falls were favorite fishing and hunting grounds. To Virginia’s early settlers, the fall line was the colony’s first frontier. Just below the falls of the Rappahannock River, the town of Fredericksburg prospered as a frontier river port. The town’s importance grew with increased river traffic. In 1728, it became an official inland port. Tobacco trade brought prosperity.
Perhaps it was its proximity to George Washington’s boyhood home or maybe it was its safe distance from the Colonial government in Williamsburg, but Fredericksburg contributed heavily to the American cause in the Revolutionary War. Munitions were manufactured here; five generals left their families here to fight; and Fredericksburg fortunes were devoted to the fight. Thomas Jefferson and others met in 1777 in Fredericksburg to draft the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom.
After the war, the city settled down to relative prosperity. Grand mansions mingled with tidy frame houses and a bustling business district by the river. But a few generations later the city’s location would come again into play – and this time it brought danger and disaster.
Located halfway between the two Civil War capitals Washington, D.C., and Richmond, Va., Fredericksburg was battered bloody for three years. The city was crippled by a Federal offensive in December 1862. Confederate troops defending the heights above the city were able to hold off repeated Union attacks mounted from the shell-pocked remains of the business district. The armies were back in the spring of 1863. This time most of the fighting raged outside the city, at a country crossroads called Chancellorsville. Again, in 1864, the blue and the gray clashed nearby. U.S. Grant had begun the last big campaign in the East in the tangled Wilderness. Ignoring massive losses, he soon had punched through to Spotsylvania. In each of the campaigns, the armies left many of their dead and wounded behind.
Today’s Fredericksburg has preserved its memories well. Its large downtown historic district is dotted with Colonial structures and reminders of the people who lived and worked here. Its Civil War past is inescapable. A major National Park interprets the battles, and the city still shows its glories and its scars.